Our cottage is at the end of a row of what were eight farm labourers' cottages. An access road runs in front of all the cottages binding us with a ribbon of asphalt, tying together neighbours and friends. It can be lonely when my husband is away in London. At dusk, when the children tip into sleep, I step outside and walk along the access road a little way, stopping to look across the fields, waiting for the lighthouse to blink, for the bats to notice me, swoop down and then away. I walk past the empty, ranked, blank windows. I think: "This is their cottage home from home. This one theirs. And this one here, is theirs." I nudge a wooden bench tighter against a wall, lift up and right a terracota pot, wonder: "Will she come this weekend or next?...How soon will they be up? Half-term perhaps?" I think what I might say, what he or she might say to me. I hope we make good neighbours; like to think we do.
By happenchance, we own the access road, all packaged up neat with gardens, a drying green and a cess pit when we came to buy the house. My baby girl with her scitter scatter run, a glance behind, one elbow tucked into her side, the other arm pumping up and down, is off along the road, giggling, sooner than a blink. After we moved back in, we wanted to gate it to stop children, more particularly, the baby girl, staggering into the real world only to be caught up, twirled around and tossed out of it again.
A Northern city neighbour, his cottage retreat far away from the passing traffic, advised us in a letter: he did not like the wooden farm gate plan. He "copied in" the other cottage folk. Concerns for the safety of all our children could be "easily remedied" he suggested with a plan. As follows:
We should clear up the front of our house. He wrote: "I am sorry to say that access into the cottages has become more difficult recently because of the location of the collection of furniture, plants and toys amassed outside of your property ...". He made the point that our "collection" made driving past the property "very difficult and potentially dangerous." We Northumbrians are reasonable people; he had a point. We moved the plastic Wendy house, the wooden castle walls, lined up the herb pots, pushed bikes and large, plastic tractors down onto the terrace.
He said the gates would mean people would have to stop on the main road and get out of their cars to cross the road to open and close them. Another reasonable point. We moved the gates along the access road so that drivers can swing in off the main road before having to get out of the car to open them. I asked my husband how he felt about becoming a gatekeeper; visitors could beep their horns when they wanted the gates open or shut and he could scurry out and open or shut it, holding out his hand for a shilling tip as they drove through. I said: "Think of it as diversification." He said: "No," or something to that effect.
Our neighbour also offered to reintroduce "Slow. Children Playing " signs on the main road and to have them made up for us. I do not know if he was planning to make up the "Oops, You Just Ran Someone Over", for a little further along if they did not catch the first sign.
He also suggested the "installation of 'child gates' to the front doors of those properties with very young children". (We are the only parents with "very young" children in the road.) For the sake of his occasional visits to his occasional home, he thought I might gate in my country child. Better this, than he gets out his car.
We might also gate our garden and the drying green, the letter made the point. And parking, do not forget the parking. His letter said we might adopt a "parking policy of reversing in to the road in front of the cottages which allows all drivers to park their vehicle as close to their property facade as possible and get into/out of their vehicles from the drivers side. (Nowadays, a common Health and Safety practice)."
If we were to go ahead, we might consider the turning circle and sweep of various vehicles which might wish to access the cottages; he helpfully provided us with diagrams of the turning circles of a private car, pantechnicon, refuse collection vehicle, medium commercial vehicle, fire appliance, and the largest commercial vehicle. I wish he had included the immense "static" holiday homes you see on trailers as you drive these country roads. You watch the house roll up the road towards you, taking up both narrow lanes as it rounds the bend, you think: Now, right now, is when I die." Then it sweeps above your head and past.
I am, I tell the bats, a cautious, fear-filled mother first, a good neighbour second. The gates are up. Open. Shut.